Sheffield Council leaders pledge immediate action to tackle racism and act on Race Equality Commission report

Sheffield City Council leaders have again promised that action to tackle racial inequalities in the city and racial bias inside the council will take place more quickly to create effective change.
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The council’s strategy and resources committee (August 2) discussed progress on an action plan on the 43 recommendations made by the independent Sheffield Race Equality Commission to move to Sheffield being an anti-racist city and tackle racial bias within the council. Members of the public came to ask questions.

A group of young women who have appeared at two previous meetings to challenge the council over systematic and institutionalised racism in schools asked a series of questions.

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Issues included disproportionate exclusion of black and brown boys, treatment of SEND students, protection of BAME staff in leadership positions, curriculum changes, bias among staff and lack of diversity in leadership roles.

Supporters of a Sheffield Stand Up to Racism open letter critical of Sheffield City Council\'s actions in response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission report. Picture: Mohammed MaroofSupporters of a Sheffield Stand Up to Racism open letter critical of Sheffield City Council\'s actions in response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission report. Picture: Mohammed Maroof
Supporters of a Sheffield Stand Up to Racism open letter critical of Sheffield City Council\'s actions in response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission report. Picture: Mohammed Maroof

These were based on the feedback they have been given by students and teachers on the issues already raised.

They were joined by a teacher, Madeleine, who said: “I am frequently mistaken for a teaching assistant by school staff who are unaware of my position. These views are not only hurtful but also damaging as they suggest the black, Asian and ethnic minority teachers are subconsciously not considered and associated with the highest positions in the education system.

“If adults have these subconscious views, then I ask you to consider what message do black, Asian and ethnic minority pupils receive from the lack of representation in the education system?

Affirmative action

Madeleine, Fatima and Sara questioning Sheffield City Council's response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission recommendations made just over a year ago. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRSMadeleine, Fatima and Sara questioning Sheffield City Council's response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission recommendations made just over a year ago. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS
Madeleine, Fatima and Sara questioning Sheffield City Council's response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission recommendations made just over a year ago. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS

“While it is beyond your control who enters the education system, it is within your powers to support current black, Asian and ethnic minority teachers in attaining higher positions so that the notion that only non-POC can be leaders is challenged and eliminated.”

She asked how affirmative action would be used and what are the targets for the next year.

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Fatima said that when staff report to school management over discrimination, it is “pushed under the carpet” unless a racist word is used. She asked how the council is tackling this.

Committee chair Coun Tom Hunt responded: “In 2022, when the Race Equality Commission was published, we said we would as a council not be afraid to change and adapt our practice and actions if impact is not felt or situations need changing.

Sheffield Race Equality Commission member Olivier Tsemo was one of several speakers to challenge Sheffield City Council on its response to the commission's report. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRSSheffield Race Equality Commission member Olivier Tsemo was one of several speakers to challenge Sheffield City Council on its response to the commission's report. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS
Sheffield Race Equality Commission member Olivier Tsemo was one of several speakers to challenge Sheffield City Council on its response to the commission's report. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS

“Whilst we said that we have begun to implement the recommendations of the Race Equality Commission – that’s what we’re going to be discussing in a moment – we know that the council hasn’t moved quickly enough as an organisation and that the racial disparities identified by the commission still affect the lives of many people in Sheffield.”

He said he had reflected on this after the last time the group spoke at the committee and said it was partly why he spoke out in public “to call for more to be done and for our work to be accelerated.

‘More to do’

“The council is committed to culture change and to becoming an anti-racist organisation and the action plan that we’re discussing today shows that there is more to do – by bringing it here and talking about it publicly and saying that we haven’t done enough is a sign that the culture change is beginning to take effect.

Rafia Hussain of Sheffield Stand Up to Racism speaking at Sheffield City Council discussion of its actions in response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission report. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRSRafia Hussain of Sheffield Stand Up to Racism speaking at Sheffield City Council discussion of its actions in response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission report. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS
Rafia Hussain of Sheffield Stand Up to Racism speaking at Sheffield City Council discussion of its actions in response to the Sheffield Race Equality Commission report. Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS

“We’re having this conversation in public with you so that we can be held to account for our actions. Large-scale culture change isn’t something that can be achieved instantly and it will take time and effort but it won’t be pushed under the carpet, I can assure you.”

He said legal definitions of discrimination and data need to be informed by lived experiences, pointing to recent reports of increased police stop and search of young BAME men and other issues such as micro-aggressions.

He said data also shows that children of colour are more likely to be permanently excluded from schools. Mixed heritage or Roma children are more likely to be educated in the Sheffield inclusion centre and less likely to have a health and care plan in place.

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He said a new citywide Belonging framework is being worked on in the autumn term: “That Belonging framework will be based on ensuring that children will be fulfilled and they belong in their family, in their local school, in their community.”

It would only be made possible by listening to staff and students.

‘Really sad’

Sheffield City Council director of policy and democratic engagement James Henderson said the council's lack of progress in in tackling racism was "a matter of considerable regret". Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRSSheffield City Council director of policy and democratic engagement James Henderson said the council's lack of progress in in tackling racism was "a matter of considerable regret". Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS
Sheffield City Council director of policy and democratic engagement James Henderson said the council's lack of progress in in tackling racism was "a matter of considerable regret". Picture: Julia Armstrong, LDRS

Coun Hunt said deputy leader Coun Fran Belbin is organising for young people to take over a council meeting so that it is shaped by young Sheffield residents.

One of the group, Sara, responded: “I just want to see action from now on. It’s really sad.”

Olivier Tsemo, chief executive of Sheffield and District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA) and an REC commissioner, asked: “Why has it been slow progress in enacting the commission?”

He said the council needs to put in place a rapid improvement plan with all changes fully funded in the council budget. Mr Tsemo said that this action was necessary to close the trust gap between the council and BAME communities.

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Rafia Hussain, representing campaign Sheffield Stand Up to Racism, presented an open letter to the committee, urging a swift and transparent response to the REC recommendations, that has been signed by city trade union leaders and community activists.

A teacher herself, she said: “The girls that have just spoken have summed everything up very nicely.”

Legacy body

Ms Hussain asked for 30 seconds’ silence to remember victims of racist attacks including George Floyd and Stephen Lawrence, as well as “countless numbers of people experiencing racism in their daily lives”.

She said that anxiety about racism in the city was shared by the 20 per cent BAME Sheffield population and also many non-BAME people who oppose racial inequality.

She suggested an open meeting involving key organisations to discuss the actions taken in response to the commission’s recommendations.

Ms Hussain added: “Sheffield City Council must lead by example. We want to be proud of our council. We want to work with the council.”

Coun Hunt said that a legacy body working to establish the REC legacy and hold the whole city to account on its aims is being set up.

He added: “It’s taken too long but time is now being put in over the next few months to make sure we get to a better place. The action plan shows interim progress has been made, not enough, but we will be bringing it back in December.”

‘Considerable regret’

During a discussion on the action plan, which councillors approved, director of policy and democratic engagement James Henderson said that the lack of progress was “a matter of considerable regret” to council officers.

He said that action around the council was based in the priority areas of learning and development, debiasing systems and processes and improving data.

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He said that 65 per cent of managers have now undergone training, data on the workforce had improved and there have been “small but positive movements” in the workforce profile.

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“We haven’t gone far enough,” said Mr Henderson. “We need to go further and be more consistent.”

Coun Joe Otten said: “I have great sympathy with people who have come to ask questions today on specific action and progress. I think the is the fourth report we’ve had in response to the REC report.” He urged the need to make progress.

Coun Zahira Naz, who chairs Sheffield Stand Up to Racism and was an REC commissioner, said: “I say we need to stop the talking and deliver real, meaningful action.

‘Nothing has changed’

“Language matters. The report references debiasing our systems. What does this mean?

"I take phone calls from council staff from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities who say nothing has changed to reduce inequalities and the lack of support they receive.

“I would like to know what concrete steps the council is taking to put its own house in order on employee relations. What changes have staff from BAME backgrounds seen in the last year when discrimination is being reported?”

She said that data shows BAME staff are still over-represented in grievance cases and HR procedures.

“What message do you have to all the 165 witnesses who emotionally and passionately shared evidence submissions to capture failings of the system to tackle racism?” added Coun Naz.

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Fellow commissioner Coun Dawn Dale won applause from more than 30 people watching in the public gallery when she said: “I’ve got family who have lived experience of discrimination and I made a commitment when I became a Race Equality Commissioner to not be silent on this issue so I can’t defend the fact that we’ve not moved on enough within the council.

“This week alone I’ve been contacted by two citizens in Sheffield – one who’s been racially profiled by a member of our staff in the city centre and another member of staff who has got protected characteristics and who has been discriminated against who is employed by this council.

“We’re over a year on now from the commission. When I became a commissioner and the report came out, myself and a fellow commissioner went to a conference of senior leaders of this council to talk about what needed to change – the culture shifts,

“Being an anti-racist organisation and an anti-racist city is not an administrative process, it is a culture change, it’s action, and I completely agree with what everyone has said – what are we doing, how are we seeing it?

“We can’t measure things with data, this has got to be measured with people’s lived experiences and if a year on, people are still coming to us – members of this community, members of this city – telling us that the council itself is still presenting itself in a racist fashion, then I feel I’ve let my family down, I feel I’ve let my community down and feel that when I made that commitment I have now let people down and I’m not going to let that happen.”

Coun Hunt commented: “We’ll be sending this report on its way with a clear sense of unhappiness with the situation that we’re in and a sense of urgency that the situation has to improve.”

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